The fierce shouts of the Germans pealed through the gloom of the forests, and in thronging multitudes they assailed the flanks of the invaders.
Continuing Arminius Drives Romans Out of Germany,
our selection from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Sir Edward S. Creasy published in 1851. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Arminius Drives Romans Out of Germany.
Time: 9 AD
Place: Teutoburg Forest
Contrary to the usual strict principles of Roman discipline, Varus had suffered his army to be accompanied and impeded by an immense train of baggage wagons and by a rabble of camp followers, as if his troops had been merely changing their quarters in a friendly country. When the long array quitted the firm, level ground and began to wind its way among the woods, the marshes, and the ravines, the difficulties of the march, even without the intervention of an armed foe, became fearfully apparent. In many places the soil, sodden with rain, was impracticable for cavalry and even for infantry, until trees had been felled and a rude causeway formed through the morass.
The duties of the engineer were familiar to all who served in the Roman armies. But the crowd and confusion of the columns embarrassed the working parties of the soldiery, and in the midst of their toil and disorder the word was suddenly passed through their ranks that the rear-guard was attacked by the barbarians. Varus resolved on pressing forward; but a heavy discharge of missiles from the woods on either flank taught him how serious was the peril, and he saw his best men falling round him without the opportunity of retaliation; for his light-armed auxiliaries, who were principally of Germanic race, now rapidly deserted, and it was impossible to deploy the legionaries on such broken ground for a charge against the enemy.
Choosing one of the most open and firm spots which they could force their way to, the Romans halted for the night; and, faithful to their national discipline and tactics, formed their camp amid the harassing attacks of the rapidly thronging foes with the elaborate toil and systematic skill the traces of which are impressed permanently on the soil of so many European countries, attesting the presence in the olden time of the imperial eagles.
On the morrow the Romans renewed their march, the veteran officers who served under Varus now probably directing the operations and hoping to find the Germans drawn up to meet them, in which case they relied on their own superior discipline and tactics for such a victory as should reassure the supremacy of Rome. But Arminius was far too sage a commander to lead on his followers, with their unwieldy broadswords and inefficient defensive armor, against the Roman legionaries, fully armed with helmet, cuirass, greaves, and shield, who were skilled to commence the conflict with a murderous volley of heavy javelins hurled upon the foe when a few yards distant, and then, with their short cut-and-thrust swords, to hew their way through all opposition, preserving the utmost steadiness and coolness, and obeying each word of command in the midst of strife and slaughter with the same precision and alertness as if upon parade. Arminius suffered the Romans to march out from their camp, to form first in line for action and then in column for marching, without the show of opposition.
For some distance Varus was allowed to move on, only harassed by slight skirmishes, but struggling with difficulty through the broken ground, the toil and distress of his men being aggravated by heavy torrents of rain, which burst upon the devoted legions, as if the angry gods of Germany were pouring out the vials of their wrath upon the invaders. After some little time their van approached a ridge of high wooded ground, which is one of the offshoots of the great Hercynian forest, and is situated between the modern villages of Driburg and Bielefeld. Arminius had caused barricades of hewn trees to be formed here, so as to add to the natural difficulties of the passage. Fatigue and discouragement now began to betray themselves in the Roman ranks. Their line became less steady; baggage wagons were abandoned from the impossibility of forcing them along; and, as this happened, many soldiers left their ranks and crowded round the wagons to secure the most valuable portions of their property; each was busy about his own affairs, and purposely slow in hearing the word of command from his officers.
Arminius now gave the signal for a general attack. The fierce shouts of the Germans pealed through the gloom of the forests, and in thronging multitudes they assailed the flanks of the invaders, pouring in clouds of darts on the encumbered legionaries as they struggled up the glens or floundered in the morasses, and watching every opportunity of charging through the intervals of the disjointed column, and so cutting off the communication between its several brigades. Arminius, with a chosen band of personal retainers round him, cheered on his countrymen by voice and example. He and his men aimed their weapons particularly at the horses of the Roman cavalry. The wounded animals, slipping about in the mire and their own blood, threw their riders and plunged among the ranks of the legions, disordering all round them. Varus now ordered the troops to be countermarched, in the hope of reaching the nearest Roman garrison on the Lippe.
But retreat now was as impracticable as advance; and the falling back of the Romans only augmented the courage of their assailants and caused fiercer and more frequent charges on the flanks of the disheartened army. The Roman officer who commanded the cavalry, Numonius Vala, rode off with his squadrons in the vain hope of escaping by thus abandoning his comrades. Unable to keep together or force their way across the woods and swamps, the horsemen were overpowered in detail and slaughtered to the last man. The Roman infantry still held together and resisted, but more through the instinct of discipline and bravery than from any hope of success or escape.
Varus, after being severely wounded in a charge of the Germans against his part of the column, committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of those whom he had exasperated by his oppressions. One of the lieutenants-general of the army fell fighting; the other surrendered to the enemy. But mercy to a fallen foe had never been a Roman virtue, and those among her legions who now laid down their arms in hope of quarter, drank deep of the cup of suffering, which Rome had held to the lips of many a brave but unfortunate enemy. The infuriated Germans slaughtered their oppressors with deliberate ferocity, and those prisoners who were not hewn to pieces on the spot were only preserved to perish by a more cruel death in cold blood.
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